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“No Capes”: We are not superheroes

By Jarrah Brown

If you read any role position description or ask someone what makes a good therapist or employee, you will often get thrown a multitude of words or values like: ‘empathetic’, ‘compassionate’, ‘dedicated’, ‘excellence’, or ‘confident’. But what happens when we strive to be all these things, only for things to not go as we planned? Or what happens if our own lives jump in the way and begin knocking us around?

Psychologist Dr. Marieke Ledingham from the University of Notre Dame in Australia recognises that self-care and wellbeing strategies are essential to facilitating wellbeing and positive mental health, but only when we, and our workplaces, also recognise, and then learn to accept, our own vulnerabilities and limitations1

So, what can we do about it? Well, the approach must be two-fold. Most research to date focuses on the role of the workplace environment. I think everyone will have read about workplace changes that can be made including supporting flexible working hours, encouraging a strong work/life balance, and providing opportunities for both clinical growth and role progression. These areas are incredibly essential to consider, but what can WE, as therapists and employees, do about it ourselves?

Image source: Pinterest, “CatWoman” by Britney Elsey, 2018

Self-care: Practicing what you preach

Most of us will speak to our colleagues, friends, and even participants about the importance of practicing self-care, and then turn around and do the opposite in our own lives. Thus, the paradox is born where therapists and employees frequently avoid seeking the same help they offer to others. But what is self-care? Simply put, the Black Dog Institute defines it as “the activities that we deliberately choose to engage in on a regular basis to maintain and enhance our health and wellbeing”. These can be virtually anything that takes us away from work and can include getting into nature and going for a hike, jumping out of a plane to go skydiving, or a bit slower pace and catching up with mates for a coffee.

By incorporating self-care activities into your daily routine, it gives give your mind and body the break or time out that it requires to “rest, reset and rejuvenate”2.

Seek and use professional and available support

As most employers begin to more and more understand the challenges and demands that our roles play on us, most are providing opportunities to access all kinds of support. This can be anything from employee assistance program (EAP), consistent supervision, management check-ins, and even informal drop-in clinical huddles. Each person is different in the amount and type of support they require. However, by having an array of alternative and regular options a person can have the chance to debrief, reflect, and also to help identify and resolve problems they are feeling. Through an EAP this support can also be done privately and confidentially. These opportunities also provide a chance for discussions around clinical reasoning and ensuring they are striving for an evidence-based approach to practice.

Practicing self-kindness

This relates to a concept I often refer to as ‘superhero thinking’ where therapists and employees believe they are required to solve all the ‘problems’ going on in their participants lives. And what’s more, do it all in the one appointment! When this doesn’t occur it can lead feeling discouraged and questions like ‘well, what’s the point?’. As Figley3 notes, ‘helping practitioners’ are often revered by the community and employers’… but may begin to seem to ‘forget they are human beings as well’. This may lead therapists and employees overestimating their ability to withstand stress and burnout1.

Connecting with the team

A workplace is made up of multiple teams, with therapists and employees often sitting across several of these. By instilling a psychologically safe environment these teams can provide an opportunity to discuss and explore things in groups. A platform for validation. A space to laugh. By leaning into these teams and actively listening, reflecting, and learning from the experiences of peers we can identify that we’re not doing things on our own and challenge concepts such as ‘imposter syndrome’. Significant evidence has been published that shows by bringing these thoughts into the open and discussing in small and supportive groups can be hugely beneficial in promoting positive wellbeing4.

As touched on, workplaces play a primary step in helping facilitate wellbeing by fostering a psychologically safe environment and providing the opportunities where therapists and employees feel confident to speak up and explore what they’re feeling.

The next step is on us!


1 Ledingham, M. D., Standen, P., Skinner, C., & Busch, R. (2019). “I should have known”. The perceptual barriers faced by mental health practitioners in recognising and responding to their own burnout symptoms. Asia Pacific Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy10(2), 125-145.

2 Black Dog Institute. (2022, August). Self-care planning for healthcare workers. Retrieved from https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Self-care-planning-for-healthcare-workers-fact-sheet.pdf

3 Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self care. Journal of clinical psychology58(11), 1433-1441

4 Baumann, N., Faulk, C., Vanderlan, J., Chen, J., & Bhayani, R. K. (2020). Small-group discussion sessions on imposter syndrome. MedEdPORTAL16, 11004.

    About the author

    Jarrah Brown is an occupational therapist at KEO Care and is mental health endorsed by Occupational Therapy Australia. Jarrah graduated from Monash University in 2015 and started his career within the non-profit community mental health space before transitioning to KEO Care at the beginning of 2021. Jarrah continues to have a passion working with individuals experiencing psychosocial disabilities and team leads one of KEO’s multidisciplinary teams.